Seeking Peace: Negotiating the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty

Seeking Peace: Negotiating the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty Reaching an agreement in 1921 that historic night.
Midnight in London: The Anglo-Irish Treaty Crisis, 1921

by Colum Kenny (Eastwood Books, €9.99)

Scholars and others continue to mull over the minutiae of the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in the early hours of the morning on December 6, 1921. Even now a hundred years later, there is a great deal to dispute, or merely discussion.

In this short book, Colum Kenny sets out his thoughts on the matter and, in particular, refutes the suggestion in Frank Packenham’s account of the negotiations, Peace by Ordeal (1935), that the Irish position had been undermined by assurances given by Arthur Griffith to Lloyd George about Northern Ireland some weeks before the treaty was signed.

Professor Kenny quotes Lloyd George as saying to Michael Collins: “We made a compromise; no compromise is logically defensible.”

It was indeed inevitable that the outcome of the negotiations would be a compromise.

The Irish delegates could not get everything they wanted. From the outset, the British refused to agree to a republic in any circumstances. All that was on offer was dominion status, with the king remaining head of State in Ireland.

If the Irish conceded this, what might they get in return? They looked for an accommodation on Northern Ireland.

As Professor Kenny points out, “the Treaty did not create it [Northern Ireland], as is sometimes mistakenly thought”.

It was already firmly established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

The options for the Treaty were that the Northern Ireland parliament would accept oversight by the new Dublin parliament (instead of oversight by Westminster) or, if not, that the border would be redrawn to reflect as far as possible the wishes of the population.

The unionists predictably rejected the former and refused to assent to the latter, thereby making a nullity of the provision for a Boundary Commission that was included in the Treaty – though, in fairness, that wasn’t obvious at the time.

Professor Kenny has identified the paper prepared for the British delegates which outlined the above options in regard to Northern Ireland, and it is reproduced in this book.

A manuscript note on it records that it was shown to Arthur Griffith on November 13. There is no evidence that he assented to it, but he did indicate openness to the idea of redrawing the border subject to the Northern Ireland government’s agreement. Since that agreement was not forthcoming, the Irish delegates were not bound – morally or otherwise – by any assurances Griffith had given.

Lloyd George, however, claimed otherwise. He then proceeded to issue his infamous threat of “war – and war within three days” if they did not sign the treaty.

The delegates, in Professor Kenny’s opinion, were right to sign the treaty.

He writes: “It would have been an irresponsible gamble for them to take a chance on the British ultimatum being a bluff. If it were not, then Lloyd George would have ended the talks and resumed a war of which the Irish were already weary and which Sinn Féin might not win.”